The best way to remind yourself that real mountains demand respect is to load up a huge pack full of camping and photography gear and try to slay four formidable mountain passes in three days without having any time to acclimate to altitude. Did I mention that I live at sea level? I live at sea level.
I admit my approach to the Four Pass Loop was a bit cavalier. I've done some mountain hiking before, and I've often had pretty heavy packs, so I thought I could load up all of my camping and photography gear into about 80 liters of backpack and race up and down each pass no problem. It was harder than that - but was it worth it? I'd go back at the drop of a hat. The Four Pass Loop is one of the most epic hikes I've ever done - the views are non-stop jaw-dropping revelations.
What is it?
The Four Pass Loop is a roughly 26 miles loop around the famed Maroon Bells - two huge maroon peaks just outside of Aspen, Colorado. The loop begins at Maroon Lake (but can also be started from Crested Butte) and can be done clockwise or counter clockwise, I think counter clockwise would be a bit more difficult because it front loads a pretty big climb, but in the end you're doing the same overall elevation each way. There are tons and tons of summaries of the hike online so I won't get too into the weeds on itinerary. The rest of this post focuses on pictures from the trip and thoughts I had while suffering up the four long ascents to the top of each pass.
Why go here? Outdoor and Adventure Travel in the Age of Instagram
There is a certain feeling you get after scrolling through your Instagram feed and seeing epic mountains reflected in glassy lakes, occupied by a single bearded guy or a girl in yoga pants and a puffy.
I must go there. I'm missing out, what am I doing with my life? I should just quit my job, get a van and go hiking all the time.
This is a new feeling for me. I have always loved backpacking, hiking, biking, canoeing, you name it, I love it. I grew up in Northern Wisconsin and the outdoors is just a way of life. In high school I did a lot of hiking and backpacking in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and in college I did a big trip to Mount Zerkel near Steamboat Springs, CO. The focus of those trips was always just two things: getting outside and away from school or work, and the people you were with. Nothing more.
I'm not going to say that that's what it should be, any motivation powerful enough to get you into the woods is a good one. But that's all it was for me up until about a year and a half ago. The change came subconsciously, there was no major point of departure. As I've become more and more immersed in photography over the past few years, I've posted more and more on Instagram, and connected my photography to likeminded (and far more talented) photographers through the usual hashtags and tags. Over time your social media develops into a sort of feedback loop, you are rewarded for posting what interests you by seeing more and more of what interests you.
Add to that the massive rise of native advertising (brands sponsoring or creating their own posts in social media, instead of making a commercial or a magazine ad) and your feed steadily morphs from a photography or experience sharing platform to a lifestyle projection platform. In other words, in the early days of social media you had control of your feed and you made it what you wanted, but today your social media feed has control over you, and tries to make you what it wants you to be. That's the "mind-meld" moment that I had leading up to, and during this trip. I realized how much I had subconsciously moved from an outdoor and photography enthusiast to someone who subconsciously desperately wanted to get "those shots" out in the wild. This wave of self-awareness led me to several thoughts:
- Awareness: I don't think all of the above is a bad thing, but it is definitely something you should be aware of. Be aware of the fact that much of what is streaming at you is backed by someone trying to sell you something. Be aware that these streams are leading you to a lifestyle image that may or may not be what you truly seek in life. I'm a firm believer in consciously seeking the things that are most important to you in life, rather than being led by whatever is coming at you, which today includes huge amounts (hours a day) of media content.
- Choices: The #wanderlust #vanlife lifestyle is attainable in our rich-world environment, but it comes with costs. What do you want in life? Do you want to start a family and save a nest egg for retirement? Vanlife will put you back a few years. Do you even like vans? This is why I'm not totally against native marketing - if you learn to be aware of it, it can force you to think about what's really important to you, and reassure you that what you have in life is what you want, or challenge you to get busy and seek what you currently don't have.
- Focus: The most important lesson of this trip - focus on the fact that you're with four awesome friends in one of the most epic landscapes in the world for four days. Really, that's more than enough, you are blessed. Take some pictures, sip some whisky, make some campfires, tell lots of stories, nothing more.
Golden Aspens, Big-ass Peaks, Starry Nights - Highlights from the trek
The aspens were at peak when we arrived. I shot these right by Maroon Lake, on the trail up to Crater Lake, which sits at the base of the Maroon Bells. I shot this with a 16-35mm lens, on a full frame DSLR. I picked up this lens specifically for this trip and it didn't disappoint. It is so crystal sharp all the time, and can perform in all light environments. The ability to get wide opens up so many more opportunities, and this shot of the trees really highlights that - I'm standing right next to them, not setting my telephoto on a tripod from the highway like most of the photographers I saw on the way into Aspen, CO. (BTW Aspen is well named, there are seriously a lot of aspens in the area)
Our first campground for the night was between Crater Lake and West Maroon Pass, about halfway up the trail. The crazy lighting to the bottom right was my buddies searching for me in the dark, thinking I'd been eaten by a bear (no actual risk of being eaten by a bear). Their headlamps created a cool effect. This was a bit late-season for shooting the milky way, since it is less visible in cold months in the northern hemisphere. Still, I was happy with my new wide angle picking up so much galactic detail.
The view from the top of West Maroon Pass, looking down the valley leading to Crested Butte. If you hug the ridge to your right, you stay on the trail toward Frigid Air Pass. The views in this section were epic - huge grasslands as far as you can see. I would have loved to camp by one of the little lakes in this area had we had more time.
Coming down from the top of Frigid Air Pass, the sun sets over the Elk Mountains. The ridge on the right extends from Maroon Peak in the east, to Hagerman Peak in the west (visible). Snowmass Mountain is right behind Hagerman. The ridge is a beast to walk over with a heavy pack. Below the ridge is the Fravert Basin, which keeps descending further and further down into a lush basin full of gurgling springs, huge waterfalls, and thick forest. I would happily spend three days camped in this basin and enjoy the super-sized nature all around.
Exiting the Fravert Basin, which is so far below that you can't even see it, the valleys are so deep that when you get toward the tops of the mountains you see superficial mountain valleys between the peaks. That's how epic the landscape is, there is an entire ecosystem hidden between the blue ridge in the distance, and the hinterlands below Trail Rider Pass in the foreground of this shot.
The lighting here was not good, but this is the Fravert Basin. To my right is a 200ft waterfall that spills into the basin. This place would be paradise in summer. Down at the end of the valley, you hang a right and make a brutal 3,000 foot ascent to the Trail Rider Pass.
Contemplating life from the top of Trail Rider Pass, looking down at Snowmass Lake.
The last day saw bad weather come in, winds got up to what felt like 40mph, and snow pelted us in the face. I think it was my favorite part of the trip. This is the top of Buckskin Pass. Maroon Peak is in the background.
Victory! We made it out in one piece. Can't wait to slay the next mountain.
I'll leave you with this incredible video that Eric Raum made of the trip. He's a talented guy, and this captured the thrill of the hike.